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2 Choosing religious life As you go on you will learn to understand religious life, how it means doing God’s will and not your own. We don’t become nuns because we like it – because the life attracts us – but solely because ‘The Master has come and called us’.1 The persistent myth of the Victorian woman, idle and innocent, performing domestic duties in the private sphere, protected from and unaware of the political world around her, has been rejected by many historians.2 Victorian women’s activities in the public and the private spheres are the centre of a

in Contested identities
Catholic women religious in nineteenth-century England and Wales

Roman Catholic women's congregations are an enigma of nineteenth century social history. Over 10,000 women, establishing and managing significant Catholic educational, health care and social welfare institutions in England and Wales, have virtually disappeared from history. In nineteenth-century England, representations of women religious were ambiguous and contested from both within and without the convent. This book places women religious in the centre of nineteenth-century social history and reveals how religious activism shaped the identity of Catholic women religious. It is devoted to evolution of religious life and the early monastic life of the women. Catholic women were not pushed into becoming women religious. On the basis of their available options, they chose a path that best suited their personal, spiritual, economic and vocational needs. The postulancy and novitiate period formed a rite of passage that tested the vocation of each aspirant. The book explores the religious activism of women religious through their missionary identity and professional identity. The labour of these women was linked to their role as evangelisers. The book deals with the development of a congregation's corporate identity which brought together a disparate group of women under the banner of religious life. It looks specifically at class and ethnicity and the women who entered religious life, and identifies the source of authority for the congregation and the individual sister.

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been no comprehensive work done to calculate the number of women who entered religious life in nineteenth-century England, although various studies exist, including this one, which include a calculation of the number of women religious who entered specific congregations. 2 Contested identities her will and now and again as an innocent led astray by the manipulative schemes of the Catholic clergy. The Catholic press and internal convent documents offered a different depiction of women religious. The Catholic press represented nuns as pious, obedient, subordinate

in Contested identities
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women who had ‘the same idea at the same time’. Yet this idea was not new; it had been evolving over the past eighteen hundred years.3 Women’s pursuit of religious life was not static despite Rome’s attempts to rigidly define monastic life for women. Women tested the boundaries of their enclosed existence. Sometimes they were thrust back into the cloister; at other times they found a space that allowed them to modify the prescribed monastic model. By the nineteenth century, the dominance of simple-vowed congregations and religious life outside the cloister became the

in Contested identities
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foundations’. The identity of women religious was carefully crafted from their first entry into the convent as postulants through to their years in the novitiate. They were trained in the spiritual, vocational and communal aspects of religious life. This training process was in many ways literal but also developed women religious through the power of the symbolic.8 The symbols of religious life – the habit, the new name and the ceremonies that marked their entrance into religious life – were as important as the texts that were read. The formation that occurred in a

in Contested identities
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looked at the developing identities of women entering religious life. Women’s religious congregations in England, as in other parts of the world, entered a period of dramatic growth in the nineteenth century. There were many women who had the ‘same idea at the same time’. In 1 Philippa Levine, Victorian Feminism 1850–1900 (London: Hutchinson, 1987), pp. 11–12. 236 Contested identities England, this expansion of religious life was set in a unique framework in a country that was just dismantling repressive penal laws against Catholics. Moreover, until the nineteenth

in Contested identities
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-century England. The introduction of active, simple-vowed religious congregations altered this hierarchy and widened the parameters of religious life by removing some of the class barriers that restricted some women’s entry into religious congregations. Next, the social composition of select congregations and congregation leadership will be examined analytically to discern further nuances to the relationship between class, ethnicity and leadership. The complicated lay-choir dichotomy is another important feature of this discussion.7 The division between lay and choir sisters

in Contested identities

did not believe she was.6 Additional factors complicated the debate. As mistress of the novices, Ursula Hewick wrote in October 1624 to inform the archbishop that Cotton had told her she liked neither the abbess nor the convent, and that she prayed God not to be accepted. Although there is no record of any initial reluctance, she had come to conceive a strong dislike for the religious life, which Hewick feared would be the cause of much trouble if her profession went ahead as planned, on 10 November 1624.7 The novice was therefore put on probation, but by February

in English Benedictine nuns in exile in the seventeenth century

Coventry Patmore’s gentle, moral and passive woman; she became the epitome of middle-class English womanhood. This model, acceptable to both Catholics and Protestants, took her place at the centre of the family unit, where beliefs about self and identity developed. The family was thus the most critical site of inclusion and exclusion where identities and loyalties were shaped through habits and rituals.10 For women entering religious life, the religious community replaced the biological family and new habits and rituals shaped the evolving identity of a religious sister

in Contested identities

the sake of Catholic survival. Collaboration with the English colleges In 1568, William Allen capitalised on the sizeable English Catholic diaspora following the Elizabethan ‘purges’ at Oxford and Cambridge to found Douai college. While gaining a reputation as the first Tridentine seminary, it was more pointedly the first institutional outlet for English Catholic religious life following Chambers_O’Connor_Printer.indd 198 08/09/2017 09:53 ENGLISH WOMEN RELIGIOUS IN COUNTER-REFORMATION 199 Elizabeth I’s accession and the return of the state to a position of

in College communities abroad